The Islamic State’s staggering successes come at a cost. After all, it’s not cheap to wage war and manage territorial conquests whose population is now roughly the size of Austria’s.
So how can ISIS, cut off from the rest of the world by financial and trade sanctions, and under daily aerial and land bombardment by some of the richest countries in the world, afford to maintain a well-armed military and pay other bills?
Interviews with Iraqi, Kurdish, European, Syrian and American government officials, analysts and intelligence agents sketch a portrait of ISIS’s robust, sprawling, and efficient financial operation. The terrorist group relies on a relatively complex system to manage its far-reaching networks. Its currencies of choice—cash, crude oil and contraband—allow it to operate outside of legitimate banking channels. Turkey’s southern corridor, Iraq’s northwestern corridor and Syria’s northeastern corridor are key weak spots, well away from the prying eyes of outside investigators.
ISIS’s financial needs go beyond underwriting terror. “It’s a huge financial package to support 8 million people—which is now the size of the population living in territories under ISIS control,” says Luay al-Khatteeb, visiting fellow of the Doha Brookings Center and director of the Iraq Energy Institute in Baghdad. “ISIS is also supporting tens of thousands of militants who have been at war for months, with new recruits coming in every day. Yet it keeps all these people answerable to them, seems to have incredible cross-border mobility and shows no signs right now of running out of money or fuel.”
INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR
On October 23, Washington’s point person in the fight against ISIS—the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen—acknowledged in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington that “[ISIS] has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace and its revenue sources have a different composition from those of many other terrorist organizations.” ISIS doesn’t “depend principally on moving money across international borders,” he said, but “obtains the vast majority of its revenues from local criminal and terrorist activities.”
This presents a formidable obstacle for the U.S. Treasury, which is accustomed to pursuing its enemies by pressuring established banks to expose their criminal clients. ISIS’s use of middlemen across the Middle East to smuggle cash in and out of its territory, in addition to employing decades-old smugglers’ routes, makes the group especially hard to track.
The reach of ISIS’s financial portfolio is broad and lucrative. Highly localized and multiple revenue streams feed the terrorist organization’s coffers—generating up to $6 million a day, according to Masrour Barzani, head of Kurdish Intelligence and the Kurdistan Regional Security Council.
Suitcases Full of Cash
Secret smuggling routes are often passed on by families from generation to generation, and they were well-secured during the lean years of economic sanctions imposed by the West during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq. Border guards were in on the baksheesh system entrenched in the culture. They would turn a blind eye when cash in suitcases or trucks containing oil or goods passed through their checkpoints. Many smugglers who traded Saddam’s oil across Iraq’s borders to Kuwait, Iran and Turkey are now working the same routes between ISIS-held Iraq and the outside world.
At its heart, the ISIS money machine runs on the fear—and greed—of the millions of people it controls. It also manifests itself in a wide range of financial activities, many of them outsourced via middlemen and driven by hordes of self-interested parties. The U.S. Treasury has declined to estimate the extent of ISIS’s total assets and revenue streams, but Cohen has called it “the best-funded terrorist organization” the U.S. has “ever confronted.”